William “Hootie” Johnson, who once vowed that Augusta National Golf Club wouldn’t admit women even “if I drop dead this second,” said he personally nominated one of the club’s first two female members.
Johnson, 81, former chairman of the private club in Augusta, Georgia, that hosts the Masters Tournament, said the official nomination of Darla Moore came from him.
“Yes,” Johnson said in a telephone interview yesterday from his home in Columbia, South Carolina. “She has a long connection with me. I’ve had her as a guest at the club a number of times along with her husband. She’s a sweet lady.”
Johnson, who was succeeded as the club’s chairman in 2006 by Billy Payne, remains active in Augusta National decisions while serving as chairman emeritus.
The Masters is the first of golf’s four annual major tournaments and draws the largest U.S. television audiences in the sport.
Moore, 58, and Condoleezza Rice, 57, the former U.S. Secretary of State, were announced two days ago as the newest members of the 80-year-old club, which also counts Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in its roster.
Johnson and Moore, both graduates of the University of South Carolina, have been friendly since the late 1990s, when Johnson was in charge of the school’s $300 million capital campaign. Moore, the wife of billionaire investor Richard Rainwater, has donated more than $70 million to the university’s business school, which was named after her in 1998.
Johnson said he remembers the moment when he decided to approach Moore for a donation to the school. She was on the cover of a 1997 Fortune magazine for an article titled, “The Toughest Babe in Business.”
“I went over to talk to the guy at the university who was heading up the campaign and I was looking through Fortune while I was waiting to see him,” Johnson said. “The guy gave me a list of four or five names where we might get big money. I told him, ‘I can’t get big money from these people, I know them all, but we might get a big gift from this lady right here.’ So I went to see her.”
Moore, who graduated from South Carolina in 1975, is the leading female benefactor of a business school, according to the university’s website.
Johnson said he has played golf with Moore and described her ability on the course as “very good.” He wouldn’t elaborate on the process of nominating Moore or Rice.
“That’s a club matter that I’m not going to discuss,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s participation reflects Payne’s political skill in bringing change to Augusta National, said Marcia Chambers, whose 2002 article on the club’s all-male membership in Golf for Women, entitled “Ladies Need Not Apply,” touched off the campaign led by Martha Burk to push for female members.
“It’s clear he got Hootie involved in the process, and that was crucial,” Chambers said in a telephone interview.
Others in the club weren’t aware of the decision ahead of time, according to two longtime members who said they learned about it from the media. They spoke anonymously because the club told members not to talk to reporters. Existing members are typically notified of new members in a letter after they have been accepted.
The decision to disclose the newest members in a public statement is a change from the longstanding tradition of not discussing private matters. The club, which opened in 1932, has never before publicly acknowledged the names of its members.
“We are fortunate to consider many qualified candidates for membership at Augusta National,” Payne said in an e-mailed statement on Aug. 20. “Consideration with regard to any candidate is deliberate, held in strict confidence and always takes place over an extended period of time. The process for Condoleezza and Darla was no different.”
The addition of Rice and Moore follows almost a decade of scrutiny of Augusta’s all-male membership. In 2002, Johnson sparked the debate when he responded to requests from Burk, then-chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, to add female members by saying the club wouldn’t admit a woman “at the point of a bayonet.” The issue led Burk to stage a small protest during the 2003 Masters.
Johnson, flanked by Payne, opened his annual pre-Masters news conference that year by saying there “may well come a time when we include women” and that the club was very comfortable with its all-male status. After being pressed on the subject, Johnson ended the gathering with a more decisive stance.
“I do want to make one point, though,” he said. “If I drop dead, right now, our position will not change on this issue. It’s not my issue alone. And I promise you what I’m saying is, if I drop dead this second, our position will not change.”
Asked yesterday if he was relieved to have the issue of women’s membership behind him, Johnson declined to comment.
“I continue to be very happy with Augusta National,” Johnson said. “I’m not going beyond that.”
Augusta National faced renewed scrutiny this year over its lack of female members amid questions about a possible invitation to Ginni Rometty, chief executive officer of International Business Machines Corp.
Rometty, who became the first female CEO in IBM’s 100-year history in January, didn’t join Rice and Moore as a member. Augusta National historically has invited the CEO of IBM to join the club, including the company’s four previous chief executives.
Johnson’s unwillingness to discuss private matters or details about the club’s decision to invite Moore and Rice is standard practice, according to former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who had discussions with the club leading up to the 1996 Olympics. Payne unsuccessfully attempted to have golf added to the Olympic schedule that year, with the intention of staging the competition at Augusta National.
“One of the things I’ve learned about Augusta, if you want to deal with Hootie Johnson, you have to do it privately,” Young said in a telephone interview. “Augusta thinks it’s the Vatican of golf and you don’t pressure the Pope. That doesn’t mean they don’t respond to pressure.”
John Helyar in Atlanta at firstname.lastname@example.org